The news that the Vatican is investigating the pastoral leadership of Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is another sign that Pope Francis is willing to tackle the problem of bishops’ accountability in a new way.
The National Catholic Reporter reported that, at the Vatican’s request, Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast visited the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese for several days last week, asking more than a dozen interview subjects questions about Finn’s leadership abilities. A spokesperson for the diocese later confirmed the investigation and said Finn was “cooperating with the process.”
Two years ago, a civil court convicted Finn on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse, in connection with the child pornography conviction of a local priest. The bishop was sentenced to two years’ probation.
News of the Vatican investigation comes on the heels of the pope’s removal of a Paraguayan bishop who had been criticized, among other things, for his promotion of a priest accused of child abuse.
Catholics in Missouri have called for Finn’s resignation, but until now there was no sign that the Vatican was paying any attention. For many Catholics, in fact, Bishop Finn has come to represent a bishop’s protected status and the Vatican’s unwillingness to take action on mishandling of sex abuse cases.
Earlier this year, Catholics in Finn’s diocese wrote to the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s representative in the United States, asking for a canonical review of Finn. It appears the nuncio and the pope were listening.
There have been several recent signs that the Vatican is taking a new look at holding bishops to account for mistakes, particularly in handling of sex abuse allegations. Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former key official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, pointed out in a speech last year that under church law bishops can lose their office for abuse or negligence in ministry.
His point was echoed more recently by U.S. Father Robert W. Oliver, Scicluna's successor at the doctrinal congregation, who said it was a “crime” under church law for a bishop to be negligent in supervision.
Pope Francis, when he met with sex abuse victims last summer at the Vatican, apologized for “sins of omission” by church leaders and said bishops “will be held accountable.”